Conservative Christians are convinced they have legitimate concerns about the teaching of American history in public schools. They have complained, “Teachers intentionally made students feel bad about America’s many crimes from its checkered past – slavery, the near genocide of Native Americans, segregation, and the oppression of women” (The Anointed, 3). They are determined to change what is taught in American history by producing a different picture of America. This “whitewashing” of history attempts to construct a new Garden of Eden where Adam rules supreme before there was interference from women, blacks, immigrants, foreigners, and Native Americans. This may be dubbed a perverse “Innocence Project.” Unlike the better known and more ethical Innocence Project, which helps persons convicted of crimes they did not commit be exonerated and released from prison, the evangelical “Innocence Project” makes the guilty appear innocent.
A Bodily History
The drama and performance at the political level has to do with actual bodies and not merely ideological differences. “But of all the daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind …. ignoring the body in the philosopher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth” (Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill).
Conservatives, lacking all these characteristics, are unwilling to admit they are in the Intensive Care Unit with a chart-full of noxious symptoms as well as the burden of being shamed by liberals. Kenneth Burke’s expression for his own struggle with breathing – gulpo-gaggo-gaspo” subbed for “gulping, gagging, and gasping,” and seems a perfect fit for the conservative reaction to being shamed (Debra Hawhee, Moving Bodies). There’s a sense of choking on political and religious ideas – our current political gagging.
The Cleansing of History
Burke’s analysis is not pretty, and he reminds us this is not a “Beauty Clinic,” his term for efforts to neaten up ideas, make them tidy, acceptable, and comfortable, and yes, more palatable. Borrowing Burke’s trope, I apply it to the conservatives who have taken American history to the “Beauty Clinic” for treatments deemed necessary for a more pleasing public presentation. America receives a born again cleansing as a nation founded by God and instilled with Christian faith. Everyone was evangelical before anyone knew what it meant to be an evangelical. At the Beauty Clinic American history becomes Christian Nationalism.
History Gets a Facelift
At the “Beauty Clinic,” history is stripped of the “flaws” of American history. Then it is given the ultimate treatment that extolls the triumphs of the new conservatism from the 1960s to the present. Wealthy white men are depicted as the saints of American greatness. History was given a new purpose: promoting America’s godly heritage. The writers of the Constitution are depicted as born-again Christians who knew the Bible. The last addition to the “new” history was to spray on layers and layers of American exceptionalism.
At one point during the multiple beauty treatments, the history-haters engage in an exfoliation – the painful removal of Caesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall because the beauty consultants claim their achievements were too meager to deserve inclusion in the new American history. During the required face lift, American economic tycoons (or the previously labeled “robber barons”) like Carnegie and Rockefeller are extolled as American heroes. During a treatment to excise unwanted particles, the voices of the oppressed, the left behind people, the left-out people, were all cut out of the story. No one was interested in people who were not famous, wealthy, or powerful. The little people didn’t need a voice. Part of the purpose of the beauty treatment is to find ways to remove any vestiges of ugliness or unattractiveness.
The Ultimate Makeover of History
The final beauty treatment replaces the flawed, wrinkled, tarnished American history with globs of nostalgia, cream of illusion, and red, white, and blue make-up. Say hello to the ultimate makeover of American history: Christian Nationalism.
There are only two things wrong with Christian nationalism: It’s not Christian and it is not good nationalism. It is idolatry. Good patriots are not nationalists. Good patriots are not attempting to impose iron-clad restrictions on the liberties of others. Beware of preachers wrapping the Bible in red, white, and blue. Beware of a political consultant, dressed in red, white, and blue, speaking with a Texas twang, pontificating about the founding fathers all being born again Christians.
Evangelicals have undergone rhetorical tummy tucks, face lifts, wrinkle removers, buttock lifts, Botox injections and liposuction. To paraphrase Proverbs 11:22 – “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout are evangelicals without good tastes.” The entire melodrama reeks of bad performers in a reality television show.
Robert McElvaine gives us a brilliant history lesson in his critique of Amity Shales’ The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. “Shlaes came out whole hog in support of the hogs. This ‘new history of the Great Depression’ is grounded in very old economics. Not content to resurrect her Lord and Savior, the Market God, Shlaes endeavored also to disinter another, far more discredited creed: the one that is known by the misnomer ‘Social Darwinism.’ In truth, few if any doctrines have ever been further from being social,’ and the application of a brutal survival-of-the-fittest doctrine to society would more accurately be termed antisocial Darwinism.”
This indicates much of the emotion that erupts among conservatives like a long dormant volcano on a South Pacific Island. The attempt to rewrite and “whitewash” American history is grounded in a very old mythology – the cherry tree, honest Abe, and the wonderful Puritan strain of American history. Not content to resurrect their Lord and Savior, “America was born a Christian nation,” conservatives have also tried to disinter Old Jim Crow, formerly one of the most discredited of all our national ghosts. With newly dressed clothes and fresh from the barber shop, Jim Crow, conservatives believe at last that the nation will fall for their primped-up, pimped-out “new” American history.
Reality check: No amount of beauty treatments can make lies into truth. No amount of white paint can cover the systemic crimes of our nation’s history. No amount of silencing can forever delete the voices that keep crying from the ground of oppression. At the end of the process, there’s no way to sweep out all the debris from the floor of the Beauty Clinic. And with all due respect to respectful conversations everywhere, Kenneth Burke’s working in “crap” is exactly where we must go before the beauty treatments turn our nation into a conservative theological version of the Stepford Patriots.
History at the “Beauty Clinic” operated by conservative Christians makes a mockery of a people founded on the words, “This do in remembrance of me.”